SoPHIA interviews Riin Alatalu, member of ICOMOS Estonia and Vice-president for Europe, during the Stakeholders´ Workshop in Dublin last September 23-24, aimed at discussing policy recommendations for holistic cultural heritage impact assessment. 

Thank you, Riin Alatalu, for joining us at this workshop. What is your relationship to heritage? 
Making it short, I have a PhD in Conservation and Cultural Heritage (CH) and I am Associate Professor in the Estonian Academy of Arts Department of Cultural Heritage and Conservation. I have been member of ICOMOS since 2007.

Would you describe ICOMOS as a technical and advisory body to the UNESCO World Heritage Centre?

ICOMOS serving as an evaluation unit or advisory body to the World Heritage Convention Committee is just one of our missions. Heritage is much broader. ICOMOS, in a broader sense, is a voluntary non-governmental expert organisation which has members worldwide. We have more than 10.000 members, 104 national committees and 28 international scientific committees. ICOMOS is a global network of CH experts – that means architects, archaeologists, engineers, but also lawyers, administrators, etc. 

ICOMOS published in 2010 the Guidance on heritage impact assessments for Cultural World Heritage Properties. I wonder if this is the first work specialised in impact assessment by ICOMOS or if there were some previous projects.

I think it was one of the first global attempts of CH experts’ to compile heritage impact assessment guidelines. These guidelines are used worldwide and are currently being renewed. We will have a new version launched later this year. ICOMOS has published also the European quality principles for EU-funded interventions with potential impact upon CH, which was our contribution to the European Year of Cultural Heritage in 2018. ICOMOS Europe group together with international scientific committee on Legal, Administrative, and Financial Issues ICLAFI has initiated recently new series of discussions on heritage impact assessments in ICOMOS.  

When it comes to the European quality principles for EU-funded interventions, how has it been structured?

Actually, it is structured around processes the way the projects are implemented: preparation of tenders, evaluation of the applications, funding and the implementation of the project. Quality Principles provide general principles as well as selection criteria.

Is this guide intended for practitioners or for developing policies?

It is for developing and implementing policies. The main aim is, like in SoPHIA, to influence the decision-makers and the politicians because we see, and this is also quite evident in the SoPHIA-studies, that sometimes with huge funds also a lot of damage can be made to heritage. One has to be careful with other projects, like the ones for road constructions or huge investments in water purifying systems that may have an impact on heritage. Thus, our ambition is to guide the different funds to respect heritage and to facilitate the broader social and economic influence from heritage projects. Our main idea is that heritage issues must be taken into account in different projects.

What challenges and opportunities do you foresee to truly adopt a holistic view in CH impact assessment?

I think the most important thing for us is to advocate for heritage among different stakeholders. Going back to the example on the road constructions, we are not experts in road constructions, so we cannot tell them how to construct the roads. But they are also not experts in heritage. The goal is to find common ground. To influence these decisions is something where we have to take the step forward and not stay passively waiting till heritage issues are taken into account, because we know it does not happen. 

And I think that, also with the SoPHIA project, the social dimension is important. A topic, in which  ICOMOS is working hard is the human rights-based approach. We have a working group which is called ‘Our Common Dignity’, based on the concept that people and communities have the right to their heritage, it comes before the economic interests. The target of the rights-based approaches is to identify people and communities involved and influenced by the processes. It is not always about finding a one and only solution or providing advice on the right way to go, but about bringing people behind the same table, to discuss, to listen to their concerns so that everybody’s rights are listened to and taken into account in the process. The key players in such processes are the right owners, who are usually the local communities, and the duty-bearers, usually municipalities or authorities. But if we think about our heritage community in-between, we may be on both sides. It is important to enable this discussion. In our rights-based approach working group, in which I am also a member, a lot of work is done by trainings. For example, on the trainings we conducted in Estonia, we included heritage experts, local communities, university students, as well as authorities for environment and heritage. Similar trainings are being carried out in Africa, India, Latin-America and other places in Europe, with the most recent ones in Norway. We also have a webinar series ‘Heritage Thursdays’ on last Thursday of every month. The next one on October 28th is dedicated to the inspirational documents, including the ones on heritage impact assessments.

It was discussed today about connecting CH impact assessment to the sustainable development goals. Do you agree with this?

Yes, absolutely. It is actually quite amazing that, as we discussed today, that policies connected to climate change and sustainable development tend to forget about heritage. Heritage is a key issue in climate change because it is an existing resource per se. So heritage must be taken into account in these policies. We discussed today about the definition of environment, what is environment? It has such a broad meaning in every language I know, but commonly it is narrowed down to a very limited one describing just nature. We should advocate for the definition of ‘environment’ that includes also heritage.

Is there anything else that you would like to add?

When it comes to CH impact assessment, both ICOMOS and the SoPHIA project have common goals. Together we have a stronger voice.    

Thank you so much for your time, for joining us and contributing to the discussions we are having in Dublin.

It is being very interesting! I am really happy that I could share the discussions we have in ICOMOS on heritage impact assessment and learn from SoPHIA. Thank you.

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